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On Playing the Piano

In any case, when sophisticated chromatic harmony became fashionable and increasingly sought after in the late Renaissance, the suspicion arose that composers were discovering their effects by accident when strumming a keyboard instrument—a little bit as if “the Lost Chord” of Victorian sentimental poetry were found again. The most outlandish chromatic harmonies of the late sixteenth century are in Gesualdo’s madrigals. Alfred Einstein, who claimed that these harmonies induced something like sea-sickness, thought that Gesualdo must have found the modulations at a keyboard. Einstein seemed to feel that this practice was wicked, perhaps even comparable to Gesualdo’s notorious engagement of hired assassins to kill his wife and her lover instead of doing the job honorably himself.

We can find the accusation of composing at the keyboard—which amounts, as I have indicated, to slander, above all when true—much earlier than in the work of a twentieth-century musicologist like Alfred Einstein. During his lifetime Monteverdi was attacked for the same crime; he was said to have discovered his dissonances at the keyboard: it was thought to be sinful above all to work out vocal harmony on the keyboard, principally because instrumental (above all, keyboard) tuning was different from vocal intonation, and the player could not adjust the tuning of the organ in mid-phrase as a singer could inflect the intonation of a note. In his attack on composers like Monteverdi, entitled revealingly Delle imperfezioni della moderna musica [“Of the Imperfections of Modern Music”], the conservative critic Artusi in 1600 attacked what he called the harsh dissonances of Monteverdi. They deceive the ear, he claimed:

These composers…seek only to satisfy the ear and with this aim toil night and day at their instruments to hear the effect which passages so made produce; the poor fellows do not perceive that what the instruments tell them is false and that it is one thing to search with voices and instruments for something pertaining to the harmonic faculty, another to arrive at the exact truth by means of reasons seconded by the ear.

We see here the formation of the prejudice against composition arrived at pragmatically by physically testing the sound instead of mentally planning it by logic, rules, and traditional reason and only using the ear in a secondary role to ratify the results arrived.

It is easy enough to demonstrate that this opposition of body and mind is unrealistic if we consider improvisation. It may not be completely true to say that the fingers of the pianist have a reason of their own that reason knows not of, because improvisation is not exactly unconscious, but it is clear that the fingers develop a partially independent logic which is only afterward ratified by the mind. Perhaps one should add that interpretation, too, works very much like improvisation. In playing a Chopin ballade, an interpretation can be as much an instinctive muscular reaction of the body as a reasoned approach.

That is, in fact, one of the problems of interpretation: a tradition of performance is often a mechanical substitute for thought or inspiration—often a happy substitute, but it becomes a disastrous inhibition when the tradition has degenerated into a lax and unquestioned reminiscence of earlier performance. The unthinking, unplanned performance—and this is an incontrovertible fact of modern concert life—is generally far less spontaneous than one which questions the traditional point of view, in which the performer questions his own instincts. The musician who has surrendered his will to tradition has abandoned the possibility of keeping the tradition alive.

The greatest interaction between keyboard instrument and the process of composition begins with the invention of the pianoforte, the Hammerklavier, in the early eighteenth century. Perhaps the first works written with the knowledge that they would be played on the new invention are the two ricercares (or fugues) from Bach’s Musical Offering. The new invention gradually asserted its supremacy over the harpsichord for use in public halls (there had never been any question of employing the clavichord for this purpose): the organ, ideologically as well as physically tied to the Church, lost its dominance with the diminished interest in ecclesiastical music. Even today the organ is irrevocably tainted with religiosity. The importance of the piano was not, however, simply its greater sonority, or even its ability to realize dynamic nuances. It was, I think, above all, the fact that it was the only instrument that could both realize an entire musical score on its own and at the same time call into play all the muscular effort of the body of the performer. A loud note on the organ does not require any extra effort on the part of the performer, and only a minimal increase for the harpsichord (since coupling the manuals to gain more sonority makes the action slightly more resistant).

Trying for a loud sonority on the clavichord only succeeds in knocking it out of tune: it is capable of a most delicate sophistication, and can achieve a lovely vibrato denied to all the other keyboard instruments, but it calls upon very little corporal force, does not engage the muscles, the body, of the performer. With the piano, every increase of sound is felt by the whole body of the pianist, bringing into play back and shoulder muscles. The performer has to cooperate directly in every crescendo and decrescendo: playing the piano is closer to the origin of music in dance than it is with the earlier keyboards that it superceded. The danger of the piano, and its glory, is that the pianist can feel the music with his whole body without having to listen to it.


With the invention of the piano came the structural use not only of a contrast of dynamics but of a gradual transition from one dynamic level to another. This kind of transition existed, of course, before the second half of the eighteenth century, but it was expressive, not structural—within the interior of the phrase, not as a means of articulating the large form.

Only an articulated contrast of dynamic levels played an important role in structure until the 1760s. It is with the gradual crescendo over a full page or more of the score that the piano came fully into its own. Later, with the invention of the steel frame that made possible the large instruments in the nineteenth century, the athletic element of performance became a basic attraction with what might be called the exhilaration of violence. The pianist produces the greatest fortissimo with an exertion that makes him or her feel as if merged with the instrument, participating directly in the creation of the volume of sound like a string or wind player. The size of the piano, however, so much greater than violin or flute, induces the belief that one is dominating the sound from within, like a singer, as if mastering it were to become part of it; and therefore to a greater extent than any other instrumentalist the pianist enters into the full polyphonic texture of the music.

This sense of physically becoming one with the instrument is the origin of the various delusions about the production of a beautiful sonority. If one leaves out for the moment the use of the sustaining pedal, there is nothing one can do with a piano except play louder and softer, faster and slower. A single note on the piano cannot be played more or less beautifully, only more or less forte or piano. In spite of the beliefs of generations of piano teachers, there is no way of pushing down a key more gracefully that will make the slightest difference to the resulting sound. Inside the piano, the elaborate arrangements of joints and springs will only make the hammer hit the strings with greater or lesser force. The graceful or dramatic movements of the arms and wrists of the performer are simply a form of choreography which has no practical effect on the mechanism of the instrument.

There are indeed different kinds of tonal beauty in piano sound, and each pianist can develop a personal sonority that makes his or her work recognizable, but it does not come from the way any individual sound is produced but from the balance of sound. This balance can be both vertical, as with a chord, and horizontal. The vertical dimension is most easily explained in terms of pure volume of sound. A chord is more or less rich in sonority according to the way one exploits the vibration of the harmonics or the overtones.4 The pianist must rely on aural experience to decide which notes in a chord to emphasize: the vibrations in equal temperament are not the same as those in a system of natural tuning. In natural tuning, for example, a minor seventh is an important component of the overtones of a note, and the major seventh a remote harmonic. In equal temperament this is reversed.

The piano is the only keyboard instrument in which one can grandly vary the effects of the harmonics of a chord at will by balancing the sound in different ways. I remember that when I was eleven years old and started to study with Moriz Rosenthal, I was astonished when I saw him play a chord several times and realized that he could bring out any individual note of that chord and that his way of doing it was invisible. Composers begin to exploit the vibrations of the overtones in keyboard music beginning with the invention of the piano in the early eighteenth century. When the piano became larger in the nineteenth century, this exploitation became more significant with Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt, and the sustaining pedal was used now not as a special effect (as we find in Haydn and still in Beethoven) but as a continuous vibration added to the sound which, with the gradual development of public concerts, helped it carry in public spaces.

Chopin and Schumann, above all, arranged the accompanying harmonies to make the notes of the melody vibrate. Debussy later created extraordinary effects by this means. A beautiful tone color also depends on an intuition of the harmonic significance, and an adjustment for the graceful resolution of the more expressive harmonies (even rhythm enters into the creation of a beautiful sound in this process). What we generally call banging is simply playing the notes of a chord all equally loud with no attempt to adjust for the individual notes within a chord and the way they resonate. Artur Schnabel’s pupils have told me that when he practiced, it was above all to balance the different notes within chords, seeking for a sound that was both singing and expressive.

The vertical beauty of sound—the balance of notes from low to high within a specific harmony—depends to some extent on the horizontal dimension, and the finest pianists make it possible for the listener to trace the expressive movement of the different individual voices within the contrapuntal texture. The glory of the piano is its ability to allow the different voices of the polyphonic structure to interpenetrate each other, shifting the levels from one line to another. The horizontal dimension requires a feeling for the expression latent within the melody and the phrase—and with the bass and inner voices as well. It goes without saying that an accent on a melodic note that sticks out like a sore thumb is immediately felt as ugly. More important is the beauty of sound that comes from recognizing the harmonic meaning within the melody and the curve of its arabesque. In tonal music—at least in what is called the triadic tonality of music from 1600 to 1910—expression is always concentrated in the dissonance. It is the dissonant note within a melody that requires at least a slight emphasis, the resolving consonance a softer release except at an emphatic cadence.

Much of the tonal beauty of the piano depends today upon the pedal, which allows the sympathetic vibrations of the whole instrument to act. Beginning with the 1830s, the almost continuous use of the pedal became the rule in piano playing (although Liszt and his school were more sparing, with a somewhat drier sound). This has had a disastrous effect on the interpretation of Haydn and Beethoven, for whom the pedal was a special effect. Beethoven, in particular, used an alternation of a heavily pedaled sonority as a contrast with dry unpedaled passages.


I have described as mere choreography the gestures that pianists employ in playing, but the choreography has a double practical function. There is the visual effect on the audience which tells the audience what the performer is feeling when the actual sound may be inadequate for that purpose. I do not wish to defend the more extravagant gestures, but I have found that even the most emphatic final cadence will sometimes not convince an audience that the music is finished without some kind of visual indication. Without it, the applause all performers hope for will be late in coming and more tentative than one would like.

The choreography has a purpose for the performer as well, like singing or grunting when performing, and becomes a way of conducting the music or a kind of self-encouragement. Claudio Arrau’s habit, for example, of simulating a vibrato with his hand on the more expressive long notes had no effect on the mechanism inside the instrument, but it was a psychological aid to interpretation and perhaps even convinced members of the audience that the note had extra resonance. The graceful gestures keep the performance relaxed, the way jumping up and down before serving loosens a tennis player’s muscles. In the case of the pianist, too, the gestures, as I have said, become part of the interpretation.

The traditional construction of the keyboard—its arrangements of black and white keys—has had a largely unrecognized influence on the history of harmony, not completely benign, because of most composers’ dependence on the piano for inspiration. The keyboard as it is constituted with its black and white keys was perhaps best fitted for music from 1700 to 1880 and has become more and more awkward since then. Above all in the late eighteenth century, music relied heavily on the transposition of motifs, or even whole sections of a piece, from one tonality to another. Playing a melody in C major feels very different under the hand from playing it in F-sharp major. We are physically in a different realm. Most music of the late 1700s is in tonalities with mainly white keys: as the work of composition progresses we find more and more black keys, and the hand begins to take different positions in order to realize the same phrases.

This means that the center of most large works, where the most important and most distant modulations occur, is different to the ear and to the mind, but in addition the sense of touch perceives the alterations and alienations of the original forms. In the development section of the first movement of Mozart’s Concerto for Piano in B-flat Major, K. 595, for example, the main theme appears in the spectacular series of B minor, C major, C minor, E-flat major, E-flat minor, ending in the conventional G minor. Each playing feels physically different for the hand, and we may say that the harmonic structure is immediately perceived by the muscles of the performer. This is the golden classical age of Western piano music, when conception, hearing, and touch all cooperate. The synthesis of tactile, aural, and intellectual experience would be difficult to repeat.

The keyboard instruments imposed equal temperament, which swept throughout the whole field of music, instrumental as well as vocal. It is sometimes said that Bach did not use fully equal temperament, but only some compromise between equal and natural tuning. However, he transposed his French overture from C minor to B minor (apparently, as Hans Bischoff suggested, to add an H (the German B) to the keys of A B C D E F G in the first two books of his Keyboard Exercises). No two tonalities are farther apart in sound than C and B in any tuning other than equal temperament, so either Bach was using equal temperament or he did not much care what the tuning did to his compositions (perhaps B minor sounded agreeably odd and exotic).

In any case, the different tunings had little effect on his procedures of composition. Beethoven, too, implied a system of equal temperament even in his string quartets, although the string players may have adjusted their pitches for expressive reasons, and still do so. He was certainly capable of writing an A-sharp for the cello together with a B-flat for the violin. Theoretically, the equal temperament imposed by the keyboard instruments reigned supreme.

In the end, equal temperament may be said to have destroyed one of the basic elements of classical eighteenth-century triadic tonality—the distinction between modulation in the dominant, or sharp, direction and modulation in the flat, or subdominant, direction. Modulating in the flat direction brings us from the basic C major, for example, eventually to G-flat major, and modulating in the sharp direction brings us to F-sharp major: in natural tuning, these two keys are different, but they are equated by equal temperament. In the long run, equal temperament obliterated the sense of the direction of modulation.

This sense was always present as an important component of the musical system from 1700 to 1800, and it was scrupulously preserved by Beethoven: the dominant was a source of drama, of raised tension, the subdominant a potential source of lyricism. The distinction was already lost for Schumann and irrelevant to Chopin, and an increasing chromaticism based on equal temperament finally drove it out, in spite of Brahms’s successful reconstruction of some part of the procedure. The symmetrical complexity of a style both diatonic and chromatic was being eroded by the piano. For more than a half-century, a complex network based on mediant relationships (or modulations by thirds instead of fifths) and on a contrast of major and minor modes was an effective substitute. With Verdi and Wagner, the tonal synthesis of an entire long work is no longer enforced, but the unity of long sections of the operas is clearly realized (and in Meistersinger and Parsifal one may even speak of the entire opera).

Modern so-called neotonal music, however, is only a hollow simulacrum of either the eighteenth- or nineteenth-century systems. In today’s neotonal works, the hierarchical richness and complexity of the eighteenth-century structures has completely disappeared; even the major-minor contrasts of nineteenth-century thought have lost their capacity for controlling the large-scale form. Each single phrase may be tonal in today’s new conservative movement, but the tonal structure of an entire piece is either abandoned or given a simplistic form which does not recognize the emotional intensity of full triadic tonality—that required an intensity of listening which most of us are perhaps no longer willing to provide. In Mozart, for example, every harmony is related to the central key, and has a different harmonic significance according to its distance from the center, and the meaning also depends on whether the harmony was reached from the sharp or the flat direction. This was an extraordinarily grand expressive system that depended on a complex hierarchy that has disappeared.

The piano, hero and villain, which helped to confirm the full hierarchical system of tonality and to destroy it from within as well, is itself becoming obsolete. No longer does every middle-class family have a piano, on which the children can pick out tunes and discover a vocation for music.


Playing the Piano’ December 16, 1999

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    In “natural” tuning, the notes of the scale are tuned by the harmonics of a fundamental note. The harmonics, as the OED puts it, are “the secondary or subordinate tones” produced by the “parts of a sonorous body (as a string, reed, column of air in a pipe); usually accompanying the primary or fundamental tone produced by the body as a whole.” The principal harmonics of a fundamental tone are those an octave above, plus the twelfth (a transposed fifth), the fifteenth (a transposed octave), and the seventeenth (or transposed third): these are the sounds of a perfect triad. Other higher intervals appear as well. These harmonics determine the sound of an instrument: a clarinet, a flute, and an oboe can all play the same note, but it will sound different because the harmonics have different powers and ratios in the different instruments.

    When, however, the scale is divided, as on the piano, into twelve equal semitones (the system called “equal temperament”), all of the notes differ slightly from the natural harmonics—all of the notes on the piano are, in fact, out of tune with nature. In equal temperament, if we go up a series of fifths (the dominant direction, e.g., C, G, D, A, E, B, F-sharp) or down a series of fifths (the subdominant direction, C, F, B-flat, E-flat, A-flat, D-flat, G-flat), we reach the same note, since G-flat and F-sharp are the same; not so in natural tuning using the perfect fifths of the harmonics, in which case G-flat and F-sharp will turn out to be slightly different and, indeed, incompatible notes.

    Equal temperament is largely imposed by keyboard instruments: any attempt to get the subtle gradations of natural tuning on a piano would end up with a complex keyboard or a double keyboard (double keyboards for this purpose were, in fact, suggested as early as the sixteenth century, but they never caught on). Almost all Western music after 1770, and a great deal of it before that date, is written at least theoretically with equal temperament in mind (although string and wind players can alter the equal temperament for practical expressive purposes). In natural tuning, the dominant and subdominant directions have radically different harmonic meanings and effects. The composers of the late eighteenth century preserved this difference of meaning even within equal temperament, but it was gradually obscured by the hegemony of the new tuning.

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